Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Perils of The Language Barrier

          The time that I most resented the language barrier here in France was one night that I was staying at a hotel, and I realized, to my horror, that my uterus was intending to completely disregard our previously established agreement, and come a week early, that traitorous bastard. I was far away from my apartment in Lyon, and far away from stores, which were closed anyway, because it was Sunday.

(Real French Fact #8: Everything is closed on Sunday, except some, but not all, cafes. There is nothing to do but eat, and maybe go on walks, or go to church. No shopping, or even grocery shopping is possible. This was hard for me to get used to at first, and when I asked a friend who had lived here the year before, she gave me some good advice: “You have to adjust; think of it as a justified excuse to watch TV all day, sit around, and eat kebab.” Which I have done weekly, and happily, ever since.)

          To recap, the stores were closed, and my womb was out on a mission to wreak havoc. With this ticking time bomb in mind, I started to walk around the hotel, hoping to encounter a maid, or some good Samaritan guest, who might have a tampon. This was when I realized my biggest problem: 

          How the hell do you say tampon in French?! Merde. 

          Finally, I walked up to the concierge, full of dread and apprehension, knowing that I did not know how to describe what I wanted. I was going to have to do… gestures. This was going to be the most messed up charades ever. I wanted to die. Not looking him (and oh yes, of course it was a man) in the eyes, I began in French:

          “Excuse me, but do you carry… uh… tampons? "

          “What was that, Mademoiselle? I couldn’t hear you.”

          “Tampons. Do you have tampons?” Oh God, I thought. He’s old. And deaf. And senile. And wants me to repeat myself roughly a million times in front of this huge line of people.

          “What’s that? TAMPONS, YOU SAY? WHAT IS A TAMPON?” He was yelling. I was dying inside.

          “Ah, you know….” Here I debated and mentally flipped through all the motions I could potentially make. I decided to go with Plan B: “Tampon,” I repeated. “Like a pad.”

          “TAMPON. WHAT IS THIS TAMPON?” He turns to the crowd of people in the lobby. “Do any of you know, what is this tampon?” Shit, shit, shit.

           A man behind me in line goes “Tampon? Hmmm… I do not know this thing.” They begin to discuss the morphology of the phrase back and forth, and I feel my stomach doing the disco around my feet, until the concierge finally says, “Don’t worry, Mademoiselle. I will look it up on the internet for you.”

          OH GOD, I thought as he started to enter it into Google, saying “Tampon… tampon…tampon…” under his breath. Frantic to end what has been perhaps the longest two minutes of my existence, I finally manage to say “comme une serviette feminine,” which saves my miserable life. The light of understanding filters into both men’s eyes, and they waste no time in cracking up. I thought I had wanted to die before, but I was wrong. Before, what I had felt was only a mild case of shame. This, this was being laughed at by two old guys, in front of a room full of people, for having an unpredictable and rebellious vagina. This was true disgrace.

          Finally, the concierge pulled it together, winked at me, and disappeared into the back room. When he returned, he slid the tampons discreetly across the counter with his hand.

           Yeah, because we’re all about discretion now.

          Moral of the story: My jeans survived to tell the tale another day. My dignity did not.


  1. bahahahaha oh gawd. that is what would have been my worst nightmare, 2 years ago. especially considering that 99% of what i bought from the grocery store or ate was directly dependent on whether or not i had to ask questions in order to receive it.

    example: i only ever ordered my meat "well done" because that's the only meat cooked-ness term i knew how to say. apparently as an American in France, you choose between growing balls, or learning to be less picky.

    however, i think i would have chosen my jeans over my dignity aussi. :-P

  2. Oh lordy - this story made me laugh.

    People should tell you before you move to a foreign country and learn a new language that you will be stripped of all dignity, confidence and the ability to express yourself beyond the range of a temperamental toddler.

    Great blog - sorry for my comments explosion but I've een reading through your entries and chuckling away.

    B x

  3. Sacrebleu! C'est ce drole!

  4. I found this post while, what else, looking up how to say tampon in French and a list of places where I could get them. I was just in the Monoprix and I swear I didn't see any, but I guess I wasn't looking for them then.... And yes, I am avoiding asking my apartment building concierge so hence my Googling, lol! This is just a wonderful blog, looking forward to reading more!